Wednesday, December 30, 2009

bruce: weekends, radios, electric chairs

Workplace anniversaries are typically marked with perfunctory, polite accolades and tidy, room-temperature anecdotes, spiced up with few mildly embarrassing snapshots, and mine was no different.

Later that afternoon, as I zeroed in on our parking lot after quitting time, I was surprised to be gently confronted by a woman I did not recognize having met, on campus or otherwise. As she spoke she struck a classic poker face, vacant of both smile or frown: "They didn't mention the electric chair." she said.

For a long moment I mentally stumbled, speechless, and upped my effort to place her face. Nothing. Electric chair...? Then it hit me: during the first days at my new job, the employees had gathered for the annual after-hours Christmas party. Among the usual festivities and chit chat was also circulated a fresh pad of post-its, upon one of which we were directed to scribble "something about you that no one knows", to be left unsigned. Favoring a persona of vaguely weird over the ubiqitous cuddly or cute, I jotted that I "..had once constructed an operational electric chair". Party goers where later playfully challenged to match this "secret" with the wide range of mostly familiar faces.

My note and I were eventually paired up and, apart from a few snickers, that was that. Again I mention, this event being ten years prior to the awkward moment I was currently sharing in the parking lot. "You remembered that?" I asked. "Well, yes." These two words came delicately framed with a facial expression which hinted kindly at the obvious, and in this instance might best be summed up as being Vaguely Weird. Ouch.

But weirdness is spawned not from sunshine, a poet may have said.

In the Pacific Northwest of the mid-60's, rainy weekends were not typically special days, and very often only especially-boring. It was such a day, left alone to drift about our fir-enshrouded house, that the challenge became to find out how best to make a good time of it, in spite of the weather.

On summer Saturdays I could walk the train tracks out of town for two or three miles and pay a visit to Bruce's new residence (a much smaller abode just off Hiway 9), but during winter it usually came down to making phone calls and hoping that someone would just show up and help you pass the time.

Burt, the latest of my short string of stepfathers, was an electrical engineer who had a passion for electronic gizmos even greater than my own. One of his best was a console reel-to-reel tape recorder that he would use to compile hours of Louis Armstrong jazz tracks for later listening. For me personally, this was a toy almost as much a delight as a movie camera (or video camera, if it were 25 years or so in the future). In a similar vein, it seemed so natural at the time that both Bruce and I collected the same, enhanced stereo sound effect albums (LPs), that the fact bore no scrutiny between us whatsoever. Together with Bruce, Burt's tape recorder and our pile of sound effects records, every MAD magazine or ARCHIE comic became a potential radio script, which we populated with an ambitious and ridiculous assortment of voice characterizations limited only by our imagination and a mid-adolescent larynx.

But, getting back to the electric chair, that was Bruce's idea. And a short time later, his sincere regret, of course.

The whole thing began when Bruce, alone at home in his basement, had accidentally dropped a large vacuum-style radio bulb on the cement floor. When it shattered, it sent aloft a pale cloud of an anonymous gaseous nature, potent enough to send him running for the stairs, and then to his backyard in order to avoid fainting after his whiff of the mysterious and unnamed fumes.

This event appears to have posed to Bruce a reverie of sorts, but not in the cautious direction of self-preservation that one might have expected. Instead, he began to quietly ponder a diabolical use for his newly discovered supply of "gas". By his own admission, his first inclination came in the thought of constructing an actual "chamber", possibly employing a hollowed-out hot water heater for the vessel itself, it being the approximately correct size to encapsulate a like-sized teenager. Into this sealed vault he could then vent the odorous contents one of his broken vacuum bulbs, and then "just watch". Then what?

His zeal for this particular contraption lost steam when he began an actual examination of the family hot water heater. It was soon obvious that the transformation from heater to gas-chamber would demand heavy labor, too much, he decided. But with his appetite for mock-execution already wetted, he wasn't about to give up, and began looking at alternatives to his original plans for "gas". Iron Maidens and guillotines posed much the same obstacle as the gas chamber - too labor intense - and while a trap-door gallows held a certain charm, he ultimately judged it too pedestrian.

It was about at this point that my Saturday blahs and Bruce's gruesome imaginings met head-long, in the way of a serendipitous visit to my stepfathers wood shop. It was only by chance that on this particular day an ordinary, straight-back wooden chair had been left there by person or persons unknown, but there in the sawdust it did linger. Bruce did not, his inspiration once more aflame. An Electric Chair. Yes.

Rummaging my house and garage for the additional components required (electrical wiring, some steel grating, assorted bolts, straps and a helmet of some kind), we devised a blueprint on the fly that bloomed before us as if it were a sunflower in a dark swamp.

In less than two hours it was completed, right down to the leather leg straps we'd manufactured from an old belt. As much as possible, every necessary detail was attended to, including a five-inch eye bolt that could be "screwed" down into the head of the due-to-be-executed. Wooden manacles (sculpted carefully from plywood using a jigsaw) hooped around ankles, wrists and elbows with equal, solid security.

So there we stood, admiring our greatest creation, without doubt the pinnacle of our most heartfelt and malevolent mischief. The Chair. And if there was ever to be a single moment wherein our two peculiar-formed psyches merged to form a single, monstrous mind, this was it.

Of course, Bruce was a fool for ever letting me convince him to be strapped in. To say the least.

With every appendage secured or strapped into place, it was now all he could manage to simply twist his wrist, not to mention in any way actually free himself. True to his vision, he himself had made certain escape was virtually impossible, and he knew it. He also realized that, in as much as he'd become obsessed with the construction of this screwball abomination, so was I now being swept up with the notion of convincing him he would be it's first test pilot. So to speak.

As he bounced and squirmed atop the chairs steel-lined seat (an electrical conduit cleverly fashioned from the bottom rack of my mothers refrigerator) I held up the electric cord wired to the chair and dangled it absently in the direction of the electric outlet next to my stepfather's workbench. Try as he might (and did, desperately), he was trapped.

But of course I let him go, eventually. And he had his day as well, when my own time eventually came. In both instances we remained close friends.

While she doesn't actually know me, or for that matter ever heard of Bruce, or even the slightest in particulars regarding our friendship, the woman in the parking lot was right.

In fact, a few minutes later that same evening, as I drove home and caught myself giggling out loud, I was sure of it.

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